Even in its attempts to survive at all costs, the Syrian regime appears to be digging its own grave.
Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (VII): The Syrian Regime’s Slow-motion Suicide, the second of a two-part report from the International Crisis Group, examines the regime’s approach to the crisis. Although the outcome remains in doubt, as many Syrians still fear the prospect of chaos and sectarian strife in the event of abrupt change, the regime has significantly hurt its case through its brutal repression, half-hearted reform suggestions and squandered credibility.
“Playing catch-up with protester demands, the regime has always lagged one if not several steps behind, proposing measures that might have had some resonance if suggested earlier yet falling on deaf ears by the time they were unveiled”, says Peter Harling, Crisis Group’s Iraq, Syria and Lebanon Project Director. “Demonstrators have turned to something else. It is not regime reform they are pursuing. It is regime change”.
By sowing fear of instability, the regime seeks to check the extent of popular mobilisation and deter its less committed detractors. But while this appears to have had the desired impact on some Syrians, the balance sheet has been overwhelmingly negative from the authorities’ standpoint. The security services’ brutal and often erratic performance has created more problems than it has solved, as violence almost certainly has been the primary reason behind the protest movement’s growth and radicalisation.
The situation has reached an apparent stalemate but it would be wrong to bet on the status quo enduring. Economic conditions are worsening; should they reach breaking point the regime could well collapse. Predominantly Allawite security forces are overworked, underpaid and increasingly worried. They could conclude that the regime is unsalvageable and defect, precipitating its end.
The international community’s options remain limited. Military intervention would be unquestionably disastrous, potentially unleashing a sectarian civil war, provoking further instability and benefiting a regime that repeatedly has depicted the uprising as a foreign plot. Sanctions against regime officials can be of use, but going further and targeting economic sectors that would hurt ordinary Syrians would backfire. International condemnation can keep the spotlight on – and potentially deter– human rights violations, but it only goes so far. At a time when a number of Syrians remain on the fence, they could view a premature determination by the international community that Bashar must go as undue interference in their affairs.
If the regime falls, Syrians will have to start almost entirely from scratch. A weak and demoralised army cannot form the backbone of an emerging state. The police are corrupt and unpopular, as is the justice system. Elected members of parliament are wholly unrepresentative, while the opposition in exile would remain distrusted by those who stayed inside. Yet, although ethnic and sectarian fault lines run deep, this would not necessarily doom the country to civil war. The Syrian people have been remarkably resistant to sectarian or divisive tendencies, defying regime prophecies of confessional strife and Islamisation.
“Ultimately, the burden lies with the protesters to counter the regime’s divisive tactics, reassure citizens who remain worried about a successor regime, and build a political platform capable of rallying broad public support”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “Risks abound, to be sure, but if Arab uprisings are the story of societies taking their future into their own hands, the Syrian people deserve no less respect than any other for their right and ability to do so”.